Monday, June 9, 2014

Concrete Words of Worship

Christian congregations are often divided over the issue of worship style; commentators on the contemporary scene sometimes speak of the “worship wars.” This sad situation is partly the result of failure to understand and appreciate the concreteness of the Bible’s descriptions of the worship of God. Worship planners and leaders who want to be faithful to the Word of God need to consider how Scripture describes worship in concrete, down-to-earth terms. Here we can only provide a sample of the more important expressions.

The biblical words regularly translated “worship” in English versions (Hebrew hishtahavah and Greek proskuneo) mean, literally, to bow down, bend the knee, prostrate oneself. Whether used literally or symbolically, they underscore the fact that worship is primarily an act of homage to a sovereign. Thus it is an observable action, not just something done “in the heart.” Of course biblical faith expects that external actions should reveal true inward motivation. But in Protestantism we have focused on this motivation or attitude and downplayed the visible action. The result has been “spectator worship” in our corporate gatherings. Who can tell anything about our real commitment to honor the Lord if we are never asked to express this commitment through visible gestures, whether bowing, kneeling, lifting the hands, or other actions both verbal and non-verbal?

Scripture often refers to God’s people “giving thanks to the Lord.” This seems to be another synonym for visible worship. The Hebrew word hodah is derived from a root that means “lift the hand,” referring to the act of swearing an oath of loyalty. To “give thanks” or “make confession” (the same Hebrew root underlies both English expressions) means to affirm our allegiance to the Lord as King; it is to take the oath of covenant loyalty, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Paul combines these two ideas — bowing the knee and taking the oath of loyalty — in his reference to the universal worship which is to be offered through the triumph of the gospel, when “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (see Philippians 2:10-11). There is no reason why the church shouldn’t anticipate this type of worship in its own corporate gathering.

Citing Romans 12:1 about our “spiritual worship” beclouds the issue, because Paul here uses the word latreia which means “service,” not “worship.” And reference to John 4:24 on “worship in spirit and truth” also begs the question until we have defined “spirit” and “truth” in biblical terms. That which is done in spirit is not invisible. To the contrary, only visible actions reveal that the Spirit is at work in a person’s or community’s life; one who is acting “in the Spirit” acts in a certain identifiable way. And truth, as Jesus defined it in the gospel of John, is the Word of God (17:17). So “worship in spirit and in truth” translates into visible, spirited actions of worship in conformity with Scriptural patterns.

Protestants have spiritualized the faith until it has become virtually invisible — even to the point of “forsaking the assembling together” in some cases. I suggest that biblical people wouldn’t recognize this as worship. When our practice of Christianity becomes primarily “a matter of the heart,” there is no way we can be held accountable for our faithfulness to the Lord by our brothers and sisters in the body. We can always claim that no one but God can judge our hearts. The point is that visible expressions of worship, whatever they may be, are not just window dressing for an inner attitude of trust in the Lord. They are part of our obedience to the Lord out of faithfulness to his covenant. Our “sacrifice of praise,” as the Psalms put it, is the tribute we offer as servants of the Great King. That’s why we need to pay much closer attention to what we do in public worship.

In The Shape of the Liturgy (1945,1983), Dom Gregory Dix wrote:

Briefly, the puritan theory is that worship is a purely mental activity, to be exercised by a strictly psychological “attention” to a subjective emotional or spiritual experience. . . . Over against this puritan theory of worship stands another — the “ceremonious” conception of worship, whose foundation principle is that worship as such is not a purely intellectual and affective exercise, but one in which the whole man — body as well as soul, his aesthetic and volitional as well as his intellectual powers — must take full part. It regards worship as an “act” just as much as an “experience” (p. 312).

One final point: genuine worship is directed to God. Much of what we do when we assemble as a body is directed horizontally, to instruct and encourage our brothers and sisters. This is good, but often there is a missing element: expressions of worship addressed directly to the Lord. Our lives of humility, consideration for others and prayerful study of the Word cannot substitute for telling the Lord directly of our love for him. I am pleased when I visit my grandchildren and observe them interacting one another, playing or conversing together without fighting. However, they could do that and ignore me entirely in the process. How much more valued I feel if they include me in their interaction, perhaps even hug me and say, “Grandpa, I love you!” I suspect this feeling is not unknown to the Lord, as well.

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